Nature & Society - June/July 2003
The plight of endangered species has been a powerful stimulus for many environmental campaigns. It has been relatively easy to generate publicity about large charismatic animals or small cute and cuddlies. The plight of the rhinoceros, poached to supply rhino horn for Chinese medicine, was one such case. In the 1980s research commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that saiga antelope horn was just as good as rhino horn in treating fevers. In the 1990s WWF, with the backing of the UN Environment Program, mounted a campaign to get saiga horn accepted as a substitute for rhino horn. This campaign may, or may not, have saved the rhinoceros, but it certainly directed poachers� attention to the saiga. This antelope used to roam in its millions across Asian steppes; now it has declined to the point where it faces extinction. The size of the herds halved between 1993 and 1998, and has halved each year since. Aerial surveys show herds consisting of only females. There seems scant hope of reversing the situation as saiga live only a few years, so breeding programs could not restore males to the herds in time to save them.
This unfortunate case illustrates one of the pitfalls of promoting a simple solution. While few cases are likely to be as dramatic as the decline of the saiga, similar traps could lie in wait for some other suggestions for saving the world.
Hemp could be a case in point. Hemp is undoubtedly a wonderful plant. It produces fibre that would make excellent, long-lasting clothes, and good quality paper. The original diesel engine was designed to run on hemp oil, so the oil could certainly power cars. The plant produces all these useful products with relatively little need for water and no need for insecticides. Advocates are right to point out all these benefits and try to get hemp legitimised as a commercial crop. But it is a fair bet that, evolution being evolution, if hemp were to be grown on the scale needed to replace significant fractions of our demand for fabric, paper and oil, some insects would develop an insatiable appetite for it. Viruses, fungi and other organisms would attack it. The problem is that our demand for oil, clothing and paper now is so great that supplying any of these things from a single source would cause problems. We run into serious problems with monocultures; we run risks when we substitute one thing for another without adequate understanding.
It is our demand that is the problem. Whales were driven to local extinction in the north Atlantic and into serious decline elsewhere, just by the demand for oil for oil lamps and to lubricate machinery. Then we moved to electricity and petroleum, But human demand for ever more products and ever more resources did not stop. That is the problem of expanding population and even more expanding consumption.
Many people realise that these are major problems. Many hopeful campaigns have been launched, and advocacies attempted to turn society around, into one that can live sustainably on the earth. So far all have failed.
TClean Up Australia (or the World), while noble, wonderful and full of hope, has fallen short of its promise, just as has the ACT �No Waste by 2010�. Recyclables are left lying around as litter or in garbage bins. Despite the lip service to a cleaner, less wasteful world, most people seem not to have taken it really to heart � they litter without thought, shop without foresight, and recycle only when it takes little effort.
Within the Nature and Society Forum there is a running discussion between those who want to advocate certain courses of action, and those who think that until humanity actually learns and completely internalises the understanding of the human place in nature, there is little hope of achieving real and effective change. There is a parallel discussion about the relative effectiveness of changing behaviours or of improving understanding.
The best course of action is probably a mix of all the approaches. Just as substituting saiga horn for rhino turned out to be ill-advised, so many advocacies could turn out not to have a satisfactory outcome. There are people who will learn best by changing their behaviour. There are others who will need to internalise a new understanding of humans as part of the natural world and there are yet others who will have to be forced by regulation or financial inducements.
One certainty is that the only person whose behaviour you can change is yourself. You can try with others, but will probably fail. However, some attempts can succeed. You can read in this journal about the efforts of the Green Team at Geoscience Australia. You may have heard of the decision by residents of Coles Bay, Tasmania, to make their area plastic bag free. So good things can happen on the local level while we try every means at our disposal to educate and change on a broader scale.
Forthcoming NSF meetings
Peter Szlapinski - Greywater re-use
Peter works for ActewAGL and will be talking about ways that grey water can be re-used.
Walter Jehne - Microbial dimensions to sustainability
Walter Jehne will discuss research on the role and management of microbial symbioses in the uptake and recycling of nutrients and how these govern the development, productivity and sustainability of the biosystems and foodchains on which human sustainability depends.
New Anti-microbial Agents
As bacteria have shown such an ability to develop resistance to antibiotics, researchers are investigating some of the other ways different species protect themselves from bacteria. One promising lead has been provided by a seaweed that blocks the bacterial communication system, thus preventing bacteria from colonising its surface.
Bacteria use a chemical language to communicate with their fellows, and so organise a cooperative effort and gain strength to successfully invade a new host. Such communication is very important in the formation of the biofilms that foul most underwater surfaces.
Compounds called furanones, produced by the seaweed, keep its surface clean, yet it appears that no strain of bacterium has developed resistance to the furanones. This could be because they do not harm the bacteria, only jam their communication system, so there is no selection pressure to drive the development of resistance.
So far tests with mice have shown that furanones can prevent infection. The next step is to investigate whether furanones can treat disease once it is established.
Many human bacterial infections involve biofilms, from gingivitis in the gums, to lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients, to urinary tract infections, so treating these is very important. Almost all patients who are catheterised for more than three weeks become infected.
One line of defence would be to incorporate furanones directly into the material of which catheters are made, so that biofilms would not form on them.
Australasian Science May 03
Because wind speed is so variable wind turbines need a variable speed drive generator, and this in turn has a very expensive electronic component which is many times more expensive than the generator itself. Engineers at the University of Technology, Sydney, have produced an alternative, a brushless doubly-fed twin stator induction machine. This needs only a third or less of the electronics in existing variable drives, and will also need far less maintenance.
Wind power companies are interested in the technology but are not interested in paying UTS for it. The University is examining the possibility of setting up its own field turbine, in an effort to get manufacturers interested.
Australasian Science April 03
The Politics of Sustainable Development in Myanmar
Talk by Dr Helen James who is a visiting fellow at NCDS, APSEG and RSPAS, ANU.
I arrived home from the NSF meeting of 16 April and turned on the radio to hear a BBC broadcaster saying �� and 70,000 child soldiers in Burma.� During the talk earlier that evening we had heard that the Maternal and Child Welfare Association, the country�s largest NGO, had 3m volunteer community workers (in a population of 52m), that there was no net shortage of food in Myanmar and yet 1 in 3 children under 5 were malnourished. These unsettling thoughts were in my mind as I typed up my notes for you.
Helen has been involved as student and academic in SE Asia, particularly Thailand and Myanmar since 1966 and is now at the ANU.
These are some highlights of Myanmar�s history:
- The pre-colonial Burmese kingdom was much larger than the present Myanmar and this past grandeur underlies national feeling in relation to regional neighbours whose territory was once under Burmese rule.
- 1948 -62 - the �golden age� of democracy immediately following independence under U Nu. This so-called golden age, nevertheless, had censorship and suppression of political opposition.
- 1962-88 - the period of military rule initiated by General Ne Win�s coup and a period not as negative as is portrayed in the foreign press: mass education expanded and led directly to mass literacy (91% today, but countered by a 50% drop out rate between primary and middle schools); transport and physical and social infrastructure improved.
- 1988 - Ne Win retired.
- 1996 - a student demonstration (possibly driven by agent provocateurs). Even then, there was a Somerset Maughamish feel to Rangoon in a nation with its peculiar mix of socialism within attitudes and institutions still redolent of their colonial past.
- 1996-2000 - universities closed.
- 1997 - Myanmar joined ASEAN. More officials travelled, bringing a refreshing range of ideas back home and motivating the Burmese to catch up with their ASEAN neighbours.
- 1997 - �Agenda 21� launched following the Rio Earth Summit. This is an internal initiative, not one driven by international pressure. It has been developed through a series of regional seminars and consolidated into a national strategy
- the process has been transparent and open
- Agenda 21�s sustainable development embraces transport, health, energy and mining.
Overseas support for Myanmar
Both Japan and Malaysia are supportive of Myanmar in public, but continue to be critical in private. China and Singapore are other supporters. Helen did not have much time for Aung San Suu Kyi; the impression she left was of someone out of their depth buttressed by an effective clique of journalists and inveterate exiled nay-sayers.
Overseas-based opposition groups
Helen referred to the overseas-based and Soros-funded anti-Myanmar groups. She indicated that their officials were in comfortable jobs and had a personal interest in the continued acceptance in the West that Myanmar is a backward, oppressed and stagnating country under a tyrannical and incorrigible dictatorship.
The exile groups have been successful in convincing sufficient US congressmen to withhold their government�s support from World Bank investment in Myanmar. They are not beyond using out-of-date material, some of it from the 1950s and from the worst of the 1980-92 period.
Prior to the 1930s, Burma was a massive exporter of rice from the delta lands held typically by Indian landlords and farmed by Burmese tenants on annual leases.
Currently all land is owned by the state. Despite this, in the more entrepreneurial south larger plots are used as collateral for loans and inherited. Most land parcels are small: there are three million plots of less than five acres - too small to attract the credit necessary to improve their productivity and survive in the market. Landlessness is increasing, despite the large-scale transfer of wilderness into paddy.
Elsewhere in Myanmar land tenure arrangements are local in origin, largely determined by lineage and class; Western property rights do not figure prominently.
Logging is conducted recklessly in border areas, with illegal felling by Chinese and Thai interests. There is a reforestation program for teak, but the focus of the influential ministry of forests is on trees as a resource for human exploitation in the international market. There is also a greening program for the central dry-zone.
Mangroves provide 80% of cooking fuel, an unsustainable situation.
There is an extensive program of dam-building for irrigation and hydro-electricity.
Doctors are all civil servants; they have to serve three years in border areas. Their training is high quality and they can easily get positions overseas.
NGOs run 191 of the 192 health-care organizations.
UNICEF criticism of community facilities stimulated mass mobilisation to improve water and sewage disposal.
The country was �in denial� about AIDS for many years.
Universities come under the ministries of their respective subject area: 52 come under education and 17 under health. This leads to overlap in the core areas.
A typical career path is for politically-interested academics to move into the bureaucracy and then up to a government ministry. The military still dominate the government, but are admitting civilians amongst them.
The minorities are being willingly integrated into the Union, despite the exile groups� advocacy of a looser federal structure. Integration is accompanied by a policy of decentralisation, improved transport and infrastructure in the border areas. There is a wariness of Western capitalism in the outlying areas.
The public revenue system is underdeveloped and corvee labour is the main means used to build roads etc.
Utilities are state-owned and inefficient, providing near-sinecures for those on the inside, a big drain on the economy.
My overall impression from Helen�s talk was that in trying to understand what is happening in places about which we have no direct personal experience, we need to draw on a variety of sources, being especially wary of partisan accounts and also of giving undue weight to anecdotes. A big ask!
The Green Team
The Green Team at Geoscience Australia (GA) are an energetic group of about twenty who, with persistence and dedication, are undertaking the task of educating their fellow workers on ways of reducing their consumption of resources. Very interestingly it was the Buildings Manager who approached some of them about two years ago, suggesting the formation of such a group. He had got the idea from a project at BP (British Petroleum also Beyond Petroleum).
Our speaker, Emma Murray, started her talk by pointing out that commercial buildings are major sources of greenhouse gases. She also pointed out that though the design of buildings is very important, the behaviour of the occupants also makes a difference.
The Green Team started with five people, and the blessing of the Executive, who now find the Team provides GA with favourable publicity! Initially the proviso was that all initiatives had to be revenue neutral: the Executive did not approve the purchase of recycled paper, for instance, as it is more expensive.
As the Team grew it involved members from all sections in the building; in a very real sense the Team is owned by the staff. Members are able to include their Green Team work in their duty statement.
Their projects have included:
The Team monitors their outcomes where they can. They also have links to an outside organisation that monitors GA�s water and electricity consumption, and posts this information on their bulletin.
As some savings have been made, management now agrees that the Team can spend some money. This will enable them to set up an organic waste recycling scheme. They may also do some revegetation in the grounds.
There were several people at the meeting who would dearly like to emulate this program in their own workplaces. They now know it is possible. They would like to have linkages to share ideas � this in turn could reach out to other government departments and agencies.
Some people have successfully introduced aquaculture in the inland to make use of the salt that is otherwise such a nuisance. One such project in Queensland has produced succulent prawns well away from their normal coastal predators and diseases. Black tiger prawns can cope with a wide range of salinity, from nearly fresh enough to drink to as salty as the ocean. This means that water from many different bores is suitable for their culture.
Ponds stocked with black tiger prawn larvae on one farm were ready for harvest three months later. A water treatment dam constructed for the project allowed the pond water to be treated and recycled.
The farmer concerned is very happy with a yield of three tonnes per hectare, and has already expanded the operation. The idea should be popular with other farmers seeking to diversify. The prawns have already found favour with chefs and consumers, with their sweet taste, distinctive colour and firm texture.
Australasian Science April 03
The positive feedback from the workshop and public forum at the end of March suggested that the timing is right for the Nature and Society Forum to work with interested groups and individuals to prepare a nomination to make the ACT the world�s first National Capital Biosphere Reserve. Despite the devastation, the Canberra fires have done one thing which is essential for the achievement of an ecologically sustainable future. They have allowed everyone in the ACT into the conversation about the environment and the future � everyone has an experience to share. A great weakness of our society is its tendency to exclude people from debates - which limits our problem solving capacity and our chances for an ecologically sustainable future.
What is a Biosphere Reserve?
A Biosphere Reserve is an internationally recognised designation for land or marine areas conserving examples of characteristic ecosystems from the world�s natural regions. Recently, the concept has been expanded to include areas which provide significant models of ecological, cultural, social, and economic sustainability. They were initiated by UNESCO to reconcile the conflicting goals of conserving biodiversity, promoting economic and social development, and maintaining cultural values. They are places where local people, scientists, and government decision makers cooperate to develop natural and cultural resources management programs. People are the central element in the process:
�Survival that depends on human attention might be called cultural sustainability. Landscapes that are ecologically sound, and that also evoke enjoyment and approval, are more likely to be sustained by appropriate human care over the long term�.
Nassauer, J. I. 1997. �Cultural Sustainability: Aligning Aesthetics and Ecology�. In Nassauer (ed) Placing Nature. Culture and Landscape Ecology, Island Press, Washington D.C.
Canberra is an ideal candidate, as a planned National Capital with a significant population adjacent to large areas of original habitat, and located on the upper reaches of one of Australia�s major inland rivers.
The Biosphere Reserve concept is dynamic and flexible. It does not �lock up� land, exclude human activity, or introduce new laws. Membership of the Biosphere Reserve program is voluntary but they must be nominated by a national government. The global network of Biosphere Reserves numbers around 420 reserves in 94 countries. Australia currently has 12 reserves.
The significance of a �Bush Capital� Biosphere Reserve
The ACT as a biosphere reserve would be a significant new development, both nationally and internationally. In Australia, it would help to provide an increased local and national focus on ecologically sustainable development, especially through such proposed complementary activities as an Australian National Centre for Sustainability. Internationally, the proposed reserve could help place Australia at the forefront of global initiatives in sustainability development. The proposed reserve would be the first in the world to involve a national capital.
A focus and a framework for an ecologically sustainable ACT
The process of preparing the Biosphere Reserve nomination for the ACT will be used as an opportunity to help to identify and celebrate the natural, cultural, and human assets of the region through participatory activities. It will involve and acknowledge as many groups as possible already working towards an ecologically sustainable future. As Canberra is a knowledge-based society, it is proposed to involve residents in the presentation of the �story� of the region. All residents will be invited to be involved in activities that will encourage them to realise their capacities to actively participate in the transformation to a sustainable society.
In many countries in the world, it appears that almost the whole population has an intimate knowledge of their land and can enthusiastically discuss concrete and associational aspects of their local landscapes. The process of nominating the ACT as a Biosphere Reserve may contribute to a similar situation in the ACT.
A group of ParkCare Coordinators, pioneers� descendants and experts from the Australian Native Plants Society were taken by bus to visit the still-closed Brindabellas section of Namadgi National Park. Steve Welch, the Environment ACT ParkCarers Coordinator, arranged for us to see the extent and varying effects of the January Bushfires, on 3rd April, 11 weeks after the fires.
Passing through the urban affected areas of Chapman and Duffy, it is amazing to see a single house, or just a few homes, remaining intact, where their neighbours had been burnt down, and now stand amidst cleared blocks.
Turning into Uriarra Road, the pine plantations are a ghastly space of blackened, burnt trunks, or stumps where they have been felled.
The rural properties are green with new growth, but the burnt fence posts and tree trunks reveal where the fires raced across the dried out paddocks. Some rural structures and houses were burnt to a mass of twisted metal, but gladly, many of the homes were saved. It was refreshing to see the lovely Uriarra Homestead with its large dam still intact. The dam providing water for the helicopters which dropped water over so many areas of the bushfires. Climbing up into the Brindabella mountains, the pine plantations, often on very steep slopes, were devastated and have left those slopes vulnerable to severe erosion. The Eucalypts looked so different with their epicormic regrowth creating that fuzzy look to their blackened trunks. We were met and then led by Alan, the Ranger who had been based at Bendora Dam Ranger station before the fires burnt his house and all possessions. He showed us the different effects of the lower intensity post January 8th bushfires which had started by lightning strikes. Some forests had trunks burnt to a metre, and the bush recovering.
The worst effect was seeing the tall, gracious stands of Alpine Ash with trunks burnt black up 30 metres, then white for 30 metres and canopies with no regrowth and just thinned to brown branches. It was distressing to see.
Along the road through Piccadilly Circus, Bull�s Head and to Mt Aggie, we had a chance to walk about and find many little plants sprouting out of the sooty earth, and to see the greens, reds and pinks of the basal regrowths of the Snow Gums. There will be lots of new Snow Gums.
Distant views across the valleys and mountains showed the varying intensity of the fires, with patches of green canopy where the earlier fires burnt with lower intensity, and patches of brown canopy where the raging fires whipped up by the hot, northwest winds which began on January 17th in the mountains, had been so severe.
At Mt Aggie, where the National Park perspex sign drooped like a saggy belly, there was a 60 metre -wide, bulldozed fire break, that clearly could not prevent the raging fire. It left the former gate, which had once closed a much narrower track, in a U-shaped bend.
Alan said that an area of Alpine Ash, near Bull�s Head, might have survived the fires, and they are concerned about the Brown Barrel trees� regrowth, but the other Eucalypts, Acacias and other plants are regenerating. Brackens and ferns were seen in soaks and gullies.
He has seen lyrebirds quite frequently, scratching for invertebrates around roadside soaks. He�s seen wombat scats, some echidnas, and a few people in the group saw a red-necked wallaby. He thought the lyrebirds must have run and fluttered down into the damper gullies, and hid in the streams, or perhaps, as Ian Fraser suggested, in wombat burrows. It is remarkable that any survived both the intensity and speed of the fires, and afterwards, through the ash and soot of the burnt, hot earth, and smouldering tree trunks searching for food.
Many of us had seen the maps and satellite photos of the extent of the January bushfires, but to be there and to see and hear about the effects was a powerful experience.Namadgi Lyrebirds
Thunder rolled over the Brindabellas,
It was good to get the following comments regarding the April/May issue.
a) coffee: an excellent reference is the special issue of WHOLE EARTH on coffee: �The Culture and Economy of a Global Addiction�.
b) The Right to Fly; re Murray May quote:
i) Notions of speed desperately need definition - as Illich (Energy & Equity, 1976) and others have pointed out. With my students I point out that if you consider the time it takes to earn the money for the commuting auto-system and its infrastructure and divide that into the number of kilometres done by the average commuter car, its speed is something like walking speed. The trick is while on your bicycle to convince yourself of this, as the drivers speed by, between the traffic lights. Auto-commuting really is a lights and mirrors trick [cf.. my The Myth of the Efficient Car, NS: Feb/Mar 2001].
ii) Our DEFAULT approach to transport needs transformation to a meta-default whereby we make quick decisions about HOW to travel when a travel demand presents itself, not just where-to-travel-with-the-car. This is akin to being able to call up the action to relax when you perceive you are stressed, i.e. not just recognise that you are stressed OR, more to the point of the example, when driving on a highway blocked by a traffic jam �of unknown provenance�, to change gear in your head [in order to relax] as well as on the floor of the car [i.e. act on the realisation that you can�t do anything anyhow, the world won�t collapse because you won�t get to where you wanted to be; so, a little self-preservation is on order].
Best regards, Frank Fischer
In 1986 disaster struck Cameroon when a great cloud of carbon dioxide rose out of Lake Nyos and suffocated over a thousand people. An elaborate pipe system has been built in the lake to drain away the CO2 as it forms so that the tragedy will not recur.
Other African lakes also contain great quantities of dissolved gas. Lake Kivu, on Rwanda�s border, contains CO2, hydrogen sulphide and methane.
Michel Halbwachs, the engineer from France who organised the Nyos pipework, has proposed a system for extracting the methane from Lake Kivu and using it to generate electricity. His suggestion is a single 360 metre long pipe, hanging into the lake from a raft. A small pump would start sucking up gas-filled water. As the water rises the gases bubbling out would pull the water up behind them, so the pump could be turned off. The gases would be bubbled through a chamber of fresh water at the right pressure to make the CO2 and hydrogen sulphide dissolve back into the water, which would then return to the depths. Lake Kivu is so much bigger than Lake Nyos that the returned CO2 is not expected to pose any threat.
In tests this system produced 85 per cent pure methane, good enough to burn for power generation. A one megawatt power station is planned; the Rwandan Government has applied to the European Community for funding. The first system should be installed this year. Industrial groups are interested in building bigger power stations.
It is estimated that methane from Lake Kivu could power Rwanda for 400 years. It could help to preserve Rwanda�s remaining forests, as the country currently gets 90% of its energy from wood.
New Scientist 1 March 03
The Menzies School of Health Sciences in Darwin has reported that arginine, a chemical found in nuts and rice gluten, helps children to survive malaria. The body produces nitric oxide from arginine and it is possible that nitric oxide protects vital organs by preventing infected red cells from blocking blood vessels. It may also reduce the production of damaging inflammatory chemicals. Nitric oxide can also kill the malaria parasite, at least in the early stages of the disease.Whatever the mechanism, it has been shown that most deaths from malaria in children were among those who had low levels of arginine in their bodies. Other studies have shown that arginine is also an inexpensive and relatively safe treatment for sickle cell crisis and vascular disease. Australasian Science April 03
Potato growers on the island of Jersey in the English Channel are testing a new plastic propagation film, made of a unique biodegradable polymer, dubbed P2, developed by a company called PVAXX in Wiltshire. P2 is available in film, extrusion and injection-moulding grades, all of which can be composted into non-toxic residues under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.
Leaving the propagation film in place, where it will break down safely into the soil, will cut labour costs and solve a waste disposal problem. Currently propagation film has to be removed before harvesting and used film has to be disposed of � from Jersey it has been transported to Scotland for recycling.
Other potential applications for P2 in agriculture are as silage film wrap, chemical dosing sachets and plastic components used for livestock health and veterinary purposes.
The Land 6 March 03
Does it matter that a hundred million plastic bottles of water were sold around the world last year?
The Sweet Water Alliance from the Great Lakes area in Michigan, USA, would like to reduce the number. They want to shut down Nestl�s Ice Mountain Water bottling plant, which has four high capacity wells sunk into the aquifer. The company paid $85 for a drilling permit, pays nothing for the water and has been given over nine million dollars in tax breaks by the state Government. The company claims they are only collecting what nature can safely replenish: currently they are harvesting 400 gallons per minute, but want to increase that.
The Sweet Water Alliance counters the company by saying that environmental impact studies show that flows in local streams and lakes have been reduced.
Earthbeat, Radio National 5 April 03
The Norwegian company TOMRA manufactures machines that look similar to a drink vending machine, but have a hole in which to place empty drink containers. A monetary refund is dispensed from the machine.
These reverse vending machines (RVMs) are marketed in Europe and America, often to sellers of soft drink and other beverages who purchase them as a means of managing returnable containers. According to the company TOMRA�s RVMs collect about 25 billion of the 800 billion drink containers sold each year.
Australian Ethical Investment�s Aim High April 03
Restoration of the Rhine
Major flooding in Europe over recent years led to the realisation that environmental and economic interests coincided. The financial losses caused by big floods downstream could only be mitigated by letting the Rhine flow more freely in its upper reaches. The removal of dykes and other constrictions let the river regain its former floodplains in the upper part of its course, slowing down its flow and lowering flood levels further along.
The environmental benefit was a rapid return of fish and insect species, though the same was not true for birds. Opinions on the restoration have varied from �the Rhine is now out of intensive care but still in hospital� to � something that was ruined has returned to something of its former beauty and ecological place�.
The Europeans, Radio National 6 April 03
A new South Australian study has found that 19 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls aged four and five are obese or overweight.
In 1996 nine per cent of preschoolers were overweight.
The Canberra Times 17 May 03